Chief medical officer’s COVID comment leaves vulnerable people gasping

After CMO Paul Kelly recently likened COVID deaths to “harvest,” a disabled woman Siobhan Simper says she feels disappointed and urges state and federal governments to reconsider their current approach to COVID.

At the Australian Medical Association (AMA) national conference on Friday, Federal Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Paul Kelly answered a question about deaths from COVID-19 in Australia. In his answer, he reflects on the meaning of the Grim Reaper, an anthropomorphic representation of death.

Kelly reflected on the deaths that have been averted in Australia over the past two years thanks to societal measures such as lockdowns, mask mandates, contact tracing and free and available PCR tests.

Then he continued:

Since then, we have really… to harvest [emphasis added]. I’m sorry to do… I’m in a doctor’s audience, so I guess you get what I’m saying here. It’s the people who didn’t die, in the last couple of years because we didn’t have the flu – because we largely didn’t have COVID and for various other reasons – who are now, unfortunately , in this difficult position of being at high risk despite their high vaccination rates. And that’s by far the majority of people who die.

Kelly is not wrong to state that deaths from COVID-19 favor the elderly and other vulnerable groups. Of those deaths, 30% occurred in nursing homes for the elderly, with residents making up just 1.5% of the population. More than 60% of deaths from COVID-19 are people over the age of 80 and 60% of deaths are in people who were not born in Australia.

People from the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups were three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those from the most advantaged groups.

We don’t have statistics on deaths in the disability community because the government doesn’t keep track. But in the UK, people with disabilities are up to 1.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people without disabilities, due to the “The Range of Disadvantages Experienced by Persons with Disabilities”.

Where Kelly and I disagree is the inevitability of such deaths. Rather than seeing the past two years of averted infections, deaths and illnesses as some sort of debt to society that must be repaid, I see them as an opportunity to celebrate. Surely all life is precious and every death has prevented a cause for celebration.

As a person with a disability, I often question the value society places on my life. When Tony Abbott gave a speech suggesting that elderly COVID-19 patients could be left for dead, I thought to myself that was just an aberration. When Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said grandparents should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy, I thought surely not everyone thinks that way.

But it’s hard to argue that sacrificing the vulnerable has become the predominant societal narrative when such commentary comes directly from the federal CMO, the person whose advice directly influences federal government policy.

Australian state and federal governments have shifted from a COVID-19 protection strategy to a free trade strategy.

Refusing to mandate masks and bring back work-from-home suggestions (against medical advice), tighten PCR testing criteria, and even attempt to remove payment for pandemic leave sends the message of complacency – we’re happy with the current situation and refuse to do anything to improve it.

Unfortunately, that leaves the disabled, the elderly, the immunocompromised, and other at-risk groups alone. A culture of individual responsibility will always place too heavy a burden on those who are already vulnerable.

For those who have shielded, masked, tested, and used COVID safety procedures, no further individual action can be taken to adequately protect them from the risk of further disability or death from infection with COVID-19.

The great irony of this laissez-faire The approach to infection is that as more people get COVID-19, the size of the risk group increases. This is because each infection has the chance to precipitate a pre-existing condition.

We know that infection with COVID-19 can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and serious blood clots. That’s not even taking into account the 10-30% of people who will develop long COVID, a devastating systemic illness similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) that can make it hard for those affected to work, walk , or even get out of bed.

Even at a conservative prevalence rate of 5%, it is estimated that up to 350,000 Australians will develop long COVID by the end of 2022. If we really claim to care about the vulnerable in our society, our current approach to COVID must be reconsidered.

Lack of mandate means there is no end in sight for the pandemic

Measures such as mask mandates, improved ventilation and air filtration, greater vaccination and antiviral use supported by an expanded telehealth program, working from home, government-funded pandemic leave and a free personal protective equipment (PPE), rapid antigen tests (RATs) and support for struggling health systems would pay for themselves time and again through the economic and societal benefits of reduced infection.

Combine that with a tailored public health information campaign and we will not only be protecting lives from COVID, but strengthening our economic system on which the pandemic has taken its toll.

Societies where the wearing of masks and other COVID protections are accepted and even embraced show us that we can move from an individualistic approach to health to a culture of communal care.

I don’t want to live in a society of creeping fatalism, where some lives are disposable — ready to be “harvested”. I want to embrace the intrinsic value of every life, however vulnerable, and live in a society that does the same.

Siobhan Simper is a disabled psychology graduate living on Wadawurrung land. You can read more from her on chroniclesiobhan.wordpress.com.

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